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Meghan’s Roots: The Duchess of Sussex’s Ancestral Links to Ireland, Malta & New Brunswick

You’d be forgiven for thinking Meghan is an Irish name. It’s actually Welsh, deriving from Meg or Meggie, itself an abbreviated version of Margaret.

It is almost four years since the world went into a frenzy over Meghan Markle’s impending marriage to Harry Windsor.  One of the stories that broke prior to the nuptials was the notion that the future Duchess of Sussex descended from an Irish lady by name of Mary Bird who had worked in Windsor Castle during the reign of Queen Victoria. [1] For fans of shows such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and ‘Genealogy Roadshow’, it was fun to imagine how this woman’s great-great-great-granddaughter was now marrying a handsome prince in that very castle.

Genealogists quickly lined up to spoil the story but there was a glimmer of truth in that Meghan did have Irish roots. I was put to work on the subject soon afterwards, aided and abetted by the brilliant Maria O’Brien of www.rootsnbranches.com, and our conclusions were published in the Irish Daily Mail on 9 December 2017.

 

Mary McCague (c. 1836-1900) and Private Bird

 

It’s a lot of greats, I know, but the Duchess of Sussex’s grandmother was a great-granddaughter of Private Thomas Bird and his wife Mary. Mary Bird’s maiden name is variously given as McCague, McCue and McHugh; her marriage record opts for McCue. [2] Born in Belfast circa 1836, she was a daughter of Francis ‘Frank’ McCue, a farmer, who lived at Merrion Strand, Dublin, and his wife Mary (née Brady). [3] In the 1920 census, one of Mary’s daughters stated that her mother’s native tongue was Irish. [4]

On 23 January 1860, a week after a powerful hurricane hit Ireland, Mary was married at St Mary’s, the (Protestant) Church of Ireland parish church in Donnybrook, County Dublin. Her husband was Thomas Bird, a labourer’s son who had joined the 1st Battalion of the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment of Foot. Ranked as a private, he had been stationed at the nearby Beggar’s Bush Barracks since his regiment’s return from India in August 1859. [5]

The 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment of Foot had plenty of Irish connections, not least that between 1843 and 1860, it was commanded in succession by two brothers, Sir Charles and Sir William Napier, who grew up in Celbridge, Co. Kildare.

That said, I wonder if Private Bird had only joined the Cheshires shortly before the marriage. Could he, for instance, have been the ‘Private Thomas Bird, 94th regiment’ who won a half-mile flat race at the Curragh in July 1857? Following Private Bird’s victory at the famous County Kildare racecourse, Lord Carlisle, the Lord Lieutenant, presented him with the champion’s belt, saying:

‘Thomas Bird, I am happy to present you with this belt, which I hope you will wear, on all proper occasions, in memory of the victory which you have achieved today; and I hope that in whatever you may undertake you may never be defeated.’ [6]

Perhaps the champion’s belt is somewhere in a Markle family attic.

When Mary White (née McCague), aka Bird, died on 19 April, 1900, in Cambridge, Middlesex, MA, her death register recorded her parents as Frank McCague and Mary Brady.

 

The Move to Malta, 1860

 

The Cork Examiner of 15 June 1860 reports on the assemblage of Private Bird’s regiment in Cork before it sailed for Malta.

The 1st Battalion of the 22nd had been on standby to embark for the Mediterranean island of Malta since at least 16 January, which suggests the couple may have married with a degree of haste. [7] There was some family lore that Mary had been disowned by her family for marrying Private Bird. The battalion was still quartered in Beggar’s Bush on 20 January.

It seems the battalion did not actually sail until 14 June 1860, six months after the Bird’s marriage in Donnybrook. On that day, 430 men, representing six companies, assembled at Queenstown (now Cobh) and boarded the Cunard Line’s new screw-steamship Olympus. A number of women and children were with them – I have a record of that number as 77 wives and 82 children, but where did I get it from! The ship arrived in Malta on 22 June. [8]

In any case, by the summer of 1860, the Birds were living in Malta. The battalion were in residence at the Floriana Barracks in the Valetta District from March 1861 until 1865. During that time, the Birds had at least two daughters. Mary, from whom Meghan Markle descends, was born on the island on 3 May 1862. [9] Her sister Hattie was born in Valetta, Malta, in 1865 or 1866.  [10] There is said to have been a third daughter, whose name may have been Gertrude. It is to be noted that there was a deadly cholera outbreak in Malta in 1865. Another dramatic moment came in August 1864 when John Burns, a private in the 22nd, killed Sergeant Ludgate in his bed at the Floriana. The sergeant had just given him four days of drilling as a punishment. [11]

 

The Move to New Brunswick, 1866

 

In early 1866, the 1st/22nd Cheshire left Malta for the then British colony of New Brunswick in Canada on board the Simcon. This was a time of mounting tension in the province on account of a series of raids organised by the Fenian Brotherhood on British army forts, customs posts and other targets across Canada. In 1867, the battalion’s commanding officer Colonel Francis Pym Harding was made Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, when the province became part of the new Canadian Confederation.

By the time the battalion left Canada to take up residence in Cork in 1869, Thomas Bird was no more. He died in New Brunswick, possibly in Fredericton, in July 1866. On 1 May 1867, his widow Mary (née McCague) married William White, a shoemaker, in Christ’s Church Anglican Cathedral, Fredericton. [12] One of the witnesses was F B Beckwith. This may be Fanny Benton Beckwith, daughter of the Hon John Adolphus Beckwith, who was married in Fredericton in 1869 to Captain Harry Leigh, an officer in the 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment. [13] This could suggest that William White was also in the 22nd Regiment, and that he had been a brother officer of Thomas Bird.

Mary and her new husband settled in Manners Sutton, York County, New Brunswick. They had two children Alexandrine (aka Alexine Heughan White), baptized in Fredericton in January 1871, and (William) Thomas, baptized in Fredericton on 17 May 1873 aged six weeks. Tragically neither child reached adulthood. Alexine passed away in January 1880 and was buried in Harvey Settlement Cemetery, York County.  Thomas died aged 17 at Lake Village, New Brunswick, on 25 October 1890. On his death record, his mother was recorded as Mary McCue and her place of birth as Belfast, Ireland. His father’s occupation was given as farmer.

Mary White (née McCague / McCue, late Bird) was 64 years old when she died of heart disease on 19 April 1900 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her death records her occupation as housekeeper and her parents as Frank McCague and Mary Brady.

 

Mary Bird (1862-1925) & George David Merrill

 

The available census records suggest that in about 1881, the Bird’s sixteen-year-old daughter Mary travelled perhaps 400 miles south-west of New Brunswick to start a new life in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Two years later, she married George David Merrill, a twenty-year-old farmer / carpenter from Center Harbor in Belknap County. The wedding took place on 23rd February 1883 at Meredith, and was conducted by Justus Erskin, Minister of the Gospel. Mary became a member of the Freewill Baptist Church in Meredith, where her husband was a deacon.

Mary Merrill (née Bird) had nine children, eight of whom survived. She named her first daughter Harriet Edith, presumably after her younger sister Hattie. Her second daughter Gertrude May Merrill (1887-1938) was born in Meredith and married Frederick George Sander; their daughter Doris Mary/May Rita is Meghan Markle’s granny.

In 1906 George and Mary Merrill bought land behind the Mail Dock at Bear Island in Lake Winnipesaukee. As well as building many cottages on the island, George Merrill provided food, ice and boat services to several generations of island residents. Mary Merrill (née Bird) died in June 1925, a year before the present Queen Elizabeth was born.

There is another Irish connection through Hattie Bird, the younger of the Bird sisters born in Malta. In 1892, aged 27, she was married just outside Meredith to a Boston-born teamster named John F McMenimey, whose parents were both born in Ireland.

 

ROYAL IRISH –SIX OF THE BEST

 

Anne Boleyn – The woman for whom Henry VIII renounced the Catholic Church, only to chop her head off seven years later. Anne’s grandmother was Lady Margaret Butler, the Kilkenny-born daughter of the immensely wealthy 7th Earl of Ormond. A sadly unfounded rumour still whirls that Anne was born at Ormond Castle in Carrick-on-Suir. Anne was briefly engaged to her cousin, later the 9th Earl of Ormond, but, alas for all, it didn’t pan out and she soon caught King Henry’s wicked eye.

Lady Slane – Just days after his coronation as king in 1821, George IV shot over to Ireland to spend time with his mistress, Elizabeth, Lady Conyngham, the chatelaine of Slane Castle, County Meath. She remained his mistress and de facto Queen until his death in 1830.

Sir John Conroy – A.N. Wilson, one of the most respected historians of the Victorian Age, proposes that Queen Victoria was the love child of a romance between her mother and an Irishman. Born to a Roscommon father and a Longford mother, Sir John Conroy clambered to the top of greasy pole of court life when he became the foremost advisor and reputed lover of the Duchess of Kent, Victoria’s mother.

Nellie Clifden – During the 1860s, the young Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) formed a ‘most disreputable liaison’ with a woman named Nellie Clifden. He was an officer stationed at the Curragh Camp at the time; she was one of the so-called Curragh Wrens, a group of young women who offered satiating entertainment to the soldiers in return for coinage. Prince Albert, his father, was not impressed: ‘I knew that you were thoughtless and weak’, wrote Albert, ‘but I could not think you depraved!’

Diana Spencer – Diana, Princess of Wales, was the granddaughter of Lady Cynthia Elinor Beatrix Hamilton (1897–1972), a daughter of James Hamilton, 3rd Duke of Abercorn. Lady Cynthia was a granddaughter of Charles Bingham, 4th Earl of Lucan. Her husband, the 7th Earl Spencer (1892–1975) was a nephew of the Earl Spencer who was twice Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under Gladstone and for whom Dublin’s Spencer Dock is named.

Sarah Ferguson – The Duchess of York’s mother was a granddaughter of Mervyn Wingfield, 8th Viscount Powerscourt, and spent much of her childhood at Powerscourt, County Wicklow. When Sarah married Prince Andrew, their wedding cake featured the Wingfield family crest.

 

FOOTNOTES

 

[1] The excitement was triggered by the record of a ‘M. Bird’  in the Inspector’s Weekly Disbursement Book of 1856 for Windsor Castle, because Mary’s ancestor was a Mary Bird. However, I don’t believe anyone ever even worked out what ‘M’ stood for in the case of the 1856 record.

[2] This deduction was reached after some skilful genealogical sleuthing by Maria O’Brien in November 2017. Maria’s information is thought to have spurred Lorna Moloney, presenter of ‘The Genealogy Radio Show’, into tracking down a possible birth record, which suggested that Mary was born in Ballinasloe in October 1829, the daughter of William McCague and Brigid Galaher. However, Fiona Fitzsimons and Helen Moss, genealogists with The Irish Family History Centre in Dublin, launched a full search and found, amongst other documents, the death record for Mary’s son Thomas White, which gives her place of birth as Belfast.

The surname of McCague is chiefly associated with Ulster and derives from Mac Thaidhg, meaning a descendant of Tadhg, the poet. Other derivations include MacKeague, MacCaigue, MacKaigue and MacKeigue.

[3] At the time of Mary’s marriage to Thomas Bird, Griffith’s Valuations recorded three McCague households in Monaghan, two in Cavan and one each in Derry and Down. That would surely have been enough to justify Meghan wearing Carrickmacross lace in her wedding dress, just as both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton did on their wedding day.

[4] One unverifiable account suggested Mary’s maiden name was Smith.

[5] For the Windsor record to have been accurate, their marriage would presumably have taken place before 1856.

[6] Freeman’s Journal, Thursday, 2 July 1857, page 3.

[7] Dublin Evening Mail, 16th January, 1860

[8] The Naval & Military Gazette and Weekly Chronicle of the United Service, 16 June 1860, recorded that ‘twelve officers, 200 men, and 1 horse’ of the 1st Division and ’17 officers, 350 men, and 6 horses’ of the 2nd had gone south from Dublin to Queenstown to board Olympus.  The Cork Constitution of 28 June 1860 added: ‘The steam transport Olympus, which sailed from this port for Malta on the 17th instant with five hundred men of the first battalion of the 22nd regiment, arrived at her destination on the 22nd instant.’

[9] Mary’s last name may have been spelled Byrd in the Maltese records but all records at the State of New Hampshire Vital Records Office show her surname as Bird.

[10] The birth record (1898) of Hugh James McMenamy, 2nd son of Hattie Bird and John F McMenamy / McMenamen / McMenimin records Hattie’s place of birth as Valetta, Island of Malta. Hattie’s mother is named as Mary McCague on their wedding record. John’s family name is also spelled as McMenimen / McMenimin but confusingly his parents are named as Patrick and Bridget Maccarron. His marriage to Hattie took place in Laconia, a small town adjacent to Meredith. He was born in Charlestown, a suburb of Boston. John worked as a teamster, possibly a carter, at the time of their marriage and was still employed as a teamster at the time of the 1910 census. John may have been a kin of Mary Bridge McManemin who was born in St John’s, married in New Brunswick and died in Belknap.

[11] The Freemans Journal, 29th August, 1864

[12] It was once thought that Thomas Bird might have left the army, settled in New Brunswick and become a shoemaker.

[13] Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, John Adolphus Beckwith was one of six children of Nehemiah Beckwith and Julie-Louise, Beckwith was a professional surveyor and engineer. He was mayor of Fredericton in 1863 and 1864. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick in 1866. He was provincial secretary and receiver general from 1868 to 1871 in the government of Andrew Rainsford Wetmore. In 1874, he was appointed to the Legislative Council of New Brunswick